Murdered But Not Killed: You Can’t Kill the Spirit

By Darlene Nicgorski 9-06-2016
SIsters Paula Merrill, SCN, (left) and Margaret Held, SSSF. Via the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth.

Editor’s Note: Srs. Margaret Held and Paula Merrill were found stabbed to death in their Durant, Miss., home on Aug. 25. Rodney Earl Sanders, 46, of Kosciusko, Miss., has been charged with two counts of capital murder, and prosecutors will decide whether to ask for the death penalty — which the two victims’ religious orders oppose. The author dedicates this reflection to her two friends Sisters Margaret Held, SSSF, and Paula Merrill, SCN.

There is a Jewish proverb often attributed to Rabbi Israel Salanter that says, "the other’s material needs are my spiritual needs."

The human faces of the poor in Mississippi called to Paula and Margaret to love and serve. They responded and found the Divine. While they remained faithful to their Roman Catholic traditions and religious congregations, they needed the “other.” As Emmanuel Levinas, the French philosopher, has taught, “The Divine can only be accessed through the human other to whom the self is infinitely responsible.” With their advanced degrees, years of exceptional service, and dedication, they could have gone anywhere. But they needed the people of Mississippi. And the people of Mississippi needed them. “The dimension of the divine opens forth from the human face."

While Margaret — who I first met in 1966 when we entered the School Sisters of St. Francis together — tried to adhere perfectly to all the theological conscripts of the day, she easily encountered her own humanness, which didn’t allow her to get caught up in seeking perfection. Her spiritually grew as she encountered the faces of those who asked for a response: Whether it required attentive medical care, a smile, some free medication, a listening ear, vegetables from the garden, or a loaf of freshly baked bread, Paula and Margaret transparently gifted those whose faces called to them.

Margaret and Paula looked into the face of their killer with forgiveness. It is clear to me that the killer never really looked into their faces, for if so, the murderer could not have done this. Some demon in the person who committed this act murdered my two dear friends but did not kill them. Their faces continue to shine as the Divine.

Each face I meet asks something of me and my responses to those faces are deepened because of Margaret and Paula. Margaret, who I recruited in 1974 to join me Mississippi and with whom I lived and worked for five years, and Paula, who I had grown to know over the years, were able to take in many of the worldwide concerns as they encountered them in the faces of the people of Mississippi. Margaret and I maintained a close personal relationship throughout the last 50 years, and our phone conversation of the Saturday before her brutal murder lives in me.

Having met the killer’s countenance, the Margaret and Paula I know would not ask for the death penalty. They would rather want to know why the prison system hadn’t done more to give the killer a chance and advocated for prison reform. The bright, open, welcoming faces of my friends Paula and Margaret are indelibly etched in my mind and will keep urging me to read the faces that come my way. While I miss them, their spirits live on in their faces of the “other.”

Darlene Nicgorski is author of Sandals and Sanctuary: The True Story of the Nun Tried by the Reagan Administration, due this fall. 

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